The Lonely Road

        David knew the words. Every one of them. But he’d never known people who actually used them so much. So casually. Especially girls.
        “All men are after only one damn thing,” Marty had shouted across David’s line. “Pussy.”
        “And if they’re not,” hollered Suzette back, “they’re no damn good!”
        The two of them taunted him ceaselessly. Mostly about sex. He couldn’t tell if they hated all men or if they were just having a jolly time with him. Embarrassing him and laughing when he blushed, which he did so easily. Each shift something more personal, more humiliating. He was only nineteen, just a boy in that warehouse. Fresh-faced fresh meat. Up past his bedtime, they teased. And the stuff they talked about! They quizzed him, guessing how experienced he was with girls, what he knew, what he had tried. How was he hung? He wasn’t still a virgin, was he? Not that! How many girls had he nailed? How many at once? Or was it guys he went after, pretty as he was? And when he wouldn’t answer, they’d come up with answers for him. Outrageous stuff. Terrible stuff.
        “That’s peach fuzz on your lip. You ain’t even shavin’ yet. Got any hair on your balls, little boy?”
        “Maybe he’s curly blond downstairs just like he is upstairs. Let’s see your junk, Davey! And that tight little ass you got. I just want to bite it!” They laughed, eyeing him up and down. Whistling. Grunting. Rubbing against him when they passed.
        And then they’d tell him about themselves. Marty, with three kids by three men. Suzette made him regular offers – anything he wanted. “I come cheap. Someday I’ll show you my tattoos, little boy. Every last one of them.” The other guys in the warehouse just chuckled as David tried to cope. His parents had given him a sheltered life; his imagination had never prepared him for this. He had no idea these kinds of people really existed. His heart grew heavy learning he lived in such an ugly world.
        One morning a few weeks before, when they were all stumbling out after their shift, Marty and Suzette ragging him as usual, they saw the child seat in the back of his car and quizzed him eagerly. But he was tired from the work, from fighting so hard to ignore them, to keep his life out of his job, and he broke down. He wearily told them that he was married and had a boy.
        “Married? You’re just a kid. What do you want to be stuck married to some bitch for at your age?”
        He shouted. “Don’t call her that!” Then the bitterness replaced the anger. “We had to get married, okay? I got her pregnant. That’s why I work all night loading stupid trucks. To make some money so we can move out of my parents’ house.” He sounded pathetic even to himself. And he knew instantly that he’d said too much. Now they would have fresh material to torment him with.
        But Marty and Suzette eased up after that. He couldn’t tell if they’d suddenly found a little respect for him or if they now considered him to be one of them. A screw up. A loser who couldn’t keep it in his pants.
        And that was what he feared the most. That in the end he was one of them. That he’d cashed in his future like a stupid, horny kid. Robbed Kathy of hers too. Most of their friends were at college now, off having adventures; he was stuck in a job that was a nightmare he couldn’t wake from. He’d doomed his little family to a dead-end life that made him cry when no one was looking. It was all he could think about anymore. What he had done to himself. To Kathy. To little Curt.
        Ice had come down in the night. The parking lot was slick, and he could feel the cold through the soles of his sneakers. The defroster in his car was broken, and there wasn’t any money to fix it. The road home was going to be difficult. He sneezed more cardboard dust out of his nose, pulled on his knit cap, and found the ice scraper under the front seat.
        “It’s too early to go home, Davey,” one the guys said, sauntering over. “Join us for a couple of beers? C’mon.” They kept coolers in their cars and sat in them during the early morning with their engines running, getting wasted before driving home. But David had heard about the busts out there. Stuff a lot worse than beer. And anyway, he wasn’t old enough to drink. They seemed like good guys, but they had hard lives with hard edges. He didn’t fit in. Worse, he didn’t want to find out that he did fit in.
        He’d had another bad shift. His belt backed up again. Packages coming faster than he could load them. The other guys could handle it. Even Marty and Suzette could keep up despite their chatter and complaining. “Hey, Davey, let me know if you want me to handle your package,” Suzette had cackled. He didn’t even get it at first. His supervisor finally came over to help, like so many nights. Seven months now and still getting behind. “You’ll get better,” she told him. “You’re doing fine, David.” He didn’t think so. How much longer were they really going to put up with him? Pretty soon, if he didn’t improve, he was sure they’d fire him. Another disappointment. To his parents. To Kathy. To Curt. What kind of husband am I? What kind of father?
        As soon as they learned she was pregnant, Kathy’s parents had cancelled her spring break trip to Italy. He and Kathy had skipped prom; she was showing by then and the pretty dress she had picked out no longer fit. They talked about skipping graduation too, but his parents objected. Their friends all had a wild summer and left for college in the fall. The best he could give Kathy was his boyhood bedroom in his parents’ little house and a nervous promise that someday they’d be able to move out. But any apartments they thought they could afford, ones that were decent enough to bring a baby into, wouldn’t take them because he didn’t make enough money or have any credit. So there they were, living in his folks’ two-bedroom house with a crying baby. His parents insisted they didn’t mind, but David did.
        He’d first noticed Kathy when they were sophomores. She had freckles and long red hair. Sometimes she wore it in braids. Sometimes in a pony tail that she flipped about. He’d noticed. When he finally screwed up the courage simply to say “Hi,” his buddy Jonathan pushed him in her direction. Kathy turned and looked at David with her green, green eyes. He hadn’t known she had green eyes. Two of them. They looked right through him. He immediately forgot what he was going to say, which she thought was endearing, so she did the talking that first time. It got easier after that. All of their friends agreed they were perfect together. By junior year, they were a couple. By senior year, they were pregnant. After all of the trouble over the last year and a half, Kathy still claimed she was happy. Happy to be Davey’s wife and Curt’s mom. And he was happy with her too, but he didn’t see how long he could keep her happy. Or keep her at all. Not the way everything was turning out. How could she love a failure like him? Nothing would delight her parents more, he knew, than for her to move back home with them, to admit marrying him was a big mistake. And to his eyes, that looked more true every day.
        His first semester at college had been a disaster. He tried going to class in the morning after his shift, covered with cardboard dust and stinking of sweat. Bleary and wanting to sleep. Trying to pay attention and take notes. No one would sit by him. He’d been a C student in high school, even when he tried. And there he was in college, thinking it might be different, that he might be different. He dropped most of his classes. A full load was unworkable. With the spring semester he shifted to night school, but he didn’t have as many choices there. It was going to be a long road, piecing together a degree that way. And his father, who had never gone to college, told David that he had to get a degree. There was nothing wrong with honest, manual labor, Joe Clark had told his son. It’s how he had put bread on the table for his family. But the world was different now, he said. And so David saw himself on course to disappoint his dad in yet another way.
        It was Kathy who should be in college, David knew. She had the brains. Kathy had aced her way through high school, even her last semester when she was pregnant and fighting with her parents all the time. She’d spoken often of getting a degree in graphic design, of being creative and making things. She even got some scholarships. Not that she needed them, as rich as her parents were. But now she was stuck changing diapers and trying to keep their boy quiet during the day in that little house because his daddy needed to sleep. What did she do all day, he wondered, while her husband was sleeping? And what did she feel at night, when she was alone in their bed?
        He was stupid. He was a stupid kid who had done a stupid thing. And look where it left him. Now he had a son that depended on him. David loved his boy, but he knew Curt needed a better life than he could ever give. The nurse at the clinic said that Curt was already way ahead of the development curve. He was going to be talking soon. And then how long until Curt, too, recognized his dad was a screw up?
        Finally home, David parked in front of the house and turned off the engine. He had made this life he must live. So he cried until some of the anguish was out of him and he could go inside where his parents, his wife, and his child waited. Already the neighborhood was waking. He wanted to get in before anyone saw him.
        He entered by the kitchen door and welcomed the warmth inside. He shook off his coat and kicked his shoes into the corner as he always did. Then he slapped his wallet and keys on the counter, peeled off his gritty shirt and jeans, and threw them down the basement steps to the laundry. His mom was in the kitchen, making coffee.
        “Good morning, Davey.” She kissed him on the cheek, ignoring that her grown son was before her in nothing more than his white cotton briefs. Loading trucks had filled out his lean body. He was fit, and a hard body was as hard edged as he ever wanted to get. It was about the only good thing to come from all of this, he decided. He could give Kathy that much anyway, but he didn’t see what good it was. Not in the long run.
        “Hi, Mom.”
        “How was work?”
        “Great. Fine.”
        “Want some breakfast?”
        He sighed. “I’ll get some cereal later. I’m beat.” He felt unclean. Unworthy. His parents wouldn’t let him buy even the groceries for his own little family, much less pay any rent. When he’d come home with his first pay stub, he was alarmed that so much of his money was already gone. His mother had sat with him and Kathy at the table that early morning and explained taxes and healthcare deductions and life insurance premiums. It was horrible. “We’ll never be able to move out!” he had moaned. She assured him they would.
        The house had always seemed big enough when he was growing up. But with Kathy living there now, the three steps between their bedroom door and his parents’ seemed to leave her no privacy at all. At her parents’ house, she’d had the whole upstairs to herself. Her own bathroom, and a bedroom twice the size of what the three of them were crammed into now.
        He padded to their room in his socks and quietly opened the door. Kathy was asleep. Beside her on the bed was little Curt. There they were in the dim light. Everything that was important to him. Peaceful and innocent. They didn’t know what the real world was like, a world he wanted more than anything to protect them from. How impossible that was proving to be.
        From the state of things, he could see that Kathy had been nursing Curt. His boy was asleep. His wife, uncovered as she was, was beautiful. David held his breath as time stopped, giving him this perfect little moment. But only a moment.
        David scooped Curt from the bed and held him. It almost looked as though his son smiled for him then.
        “Hello, little man,” he whispered. “Smells like someone needs his diaper changed.” David laid Curt in his crib and cleaned him, putting on a fresh diaper, then he carried him to the rocking chair they had squeezed into their room.
        “Here we are,” he whispered, rocking his sleeping son. “The two Clark boys in their underwear.”
        He ran his fingers through Curt’s wispy hair. It was coming out red, just like his mom’s. David looked at his little boy. Sweet. Trusting. He held Curt tight and dropped his face to his son’s shoulder.
        “Please, please, please be like your mother,” he sobbed. “Don’t be like your dad. Please, Curt!”
        Kathy stirred then and saw them.
        “There are the two men I love,” she murmured.
        David couldn’t look up, didn’t dare meet his wife’s eyes that saw through him.
        “The two best things that have ever happened to me.”
        How he wished that were true. Wished he could make it true. But he didn’t know how. Didn’t see how she could even pretend to believe that.
        “Is Curt asleep?”
        She rose onto one elbow. “Well, why don’t you put him in his crib and come be with me?”
        “I’m a mess, Kathy.”
        “You’re fine, Davey. C’mon.”
        David eased Curt into his crib, careful not to wake the sleeping boy, and pulled a blanket over him. Then he turned to Kathy. She reached up and hooked a finger into the waistband of his briefs, pulling him closer.
        They loved each other then, patiently, quietly. And for a while, David felt his cares fall away. Maybe it was true, he thought, as a tear escaped his eye. Maybe she really did love him. And maybe her love would be enough to save him.

Paul Lamb

Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to the Missouri Ozarks whenever he finds the chance. His stories have appeared in About Place Journal, Bartleby Snopes,The Little Patuxent Review, Danse Macabre, The Platte Valley Review, Midwest Literary Magazine, and others. He blogs about his writing and other oddments at Lucky Rabbit’s Foot. He rarely strays far from his laptop, unless he’s out running, which he’s been doing a lot lately.

Paul Lamb's website »